The 1981 Moroccan riots shook the Arabic nation to the core. Large scores of people took to the streets in order to demonstrate about fast-rising prices, in what became known as the Hunger Revolts. On June 20th, the country’s authoritarian King Hassan II unleashed the army and the police upon the protestors, claiming the lives of around 600 people, including many children. Countless others were tortured and imprisoned. This period of oppression as known as the Lead years. Asmae ElMoudir’s parents Mohammed and Ouarda and were amongst the people who were on the streets. On the other hand, her paternal grandmother Zahra was a staunch supporter to the monarch: a large image of the controversial ruler was the only image allowed in her house.
Four decades later, ElMoudir persuades her father, a skilled craftsman, to build a scale model of their neighbourhood, including large dollhouse replicas of their own house, fully equipped with bedrooms, furniture and its inhabitants. Even the poster of Hassan II is featured in the reconstruction. The filmmaker captures her father and his team at the coalface, and also the final outcome of their love labour. Cinematographer Hatem Nechi shoots the tiny houses, bedrooms and dolls from close up, creating a peculiar illusion of the past. At times, these images look like an eerie combination of stop-motion and tableaux vivants. These are impressive results achieved on a visibly small budget. The makers instrumentalise the monetary limitations in their favour. What could be a handicap becomes instead catalyst for creativity.
The Mother of All Lies also exceeds in its frankness. ElMoudir puts the relationship to her relatives on the line. Three generations get together and rip their hearts open, at times slipping into overt confrontation. Zahra allegiance to the late ruthless dictator has barely changed, it seems The sharp and stern grandmother has a fraught relationship with the smiling and kind mother. They repeatedly clash. In fact, they are on a war path. In what’s perhaps the film most powerful scene, the hitherto cold and unapologetic old woman explains why she locked her family inside the house during the Revolts. Meanwhile, the father recalls how large numbers of people were locked in 12m2 chamber with windows, and devastatingly reenacts the scene with his model and dolls to hand. Despite the unabashed intimacy encroaching, ElMoudir never slips into exploitation territory.
Not all is doom and gloom. There is a possibility of generational reconciliation. There is hope and optimism, even if the nation’s present government isn’t quite a role model of democracy. And there are warm and gentle moments of comic relief. These come from the mother and the grandmother with their opposite personalities. The former elicits laughter as she mocks her relationship to her decade-long partner. She exclaims: “I don’t love him anyone”, before breaking into a cheeky smile “or maybe I love him a little bit”. Grumpy and blunt grandma too is hilarious. She curses her son for creating a “deformed” version of herself because she thinks that the doll’s nose is too big. And she slams her granddaughter for being a filmmaker, insisting that she’s a journalist instead: “filmmakers hang in bars and shame their family”. Thoroughly relatable for the journalist and filmmaker writing this review.
The latest film by this young and experienced documentarist is not without flaws. The narrative hesitates between chronology and freeform, and it isn’t always entirely coherent. Thankfully, the abundant audacity, inventiveness and candidness warrant a touching and remarkable viewing.
The Mother of All Lies shows at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival. It premiered earlier this year in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes, where it snatched the Best Director Prize.